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The Power of Social Fluency

Annet King October 2006 issue of Skin Inc. magazine

When somebody mentions the word “networking,” I feel my own sleek shoulders rising like puff pastry to form the perfect Dynasty -era shoulder pads. I think I even feel the tingle of big, bad acrylic nails sprouting from my virgin cuticles. “Networking” as a term brings me back to the jewel-toned power suits and crunchy hair of the 1980s. So instead, I prefer to think of this behavior as the dynamic process of interaction—as cross-pollinating, weaving, meshing, bridge-building, bonding and spider-webbing. Whatever you call it, it’s essential for business success, and it happens more frequently and in more ways than you’ve ever imagined.

Touch with your eyes

Human communication begins with the eyes. Online dating notwithstanding, eye contact ideally is the first step in any social interaction, and it requires more skill than you initially may understand. In this hurry-up world, most people are not generous with their gaze—they’re too busy jumping from the greeting to check the computer screen, look at their watch or glance at their BlackBerry.

A deep gaze may bring out your inner shyness. Too much eye contact could be interpreted as being seductive. In other settings, such as spaghetti westerns, Clint Eastwood’s full unflinching, unblinking gaze is viewed merely as confrontational. To be sure, eye contact is potent, although its particular interpretations may vary.

“Eye contact requires more skill and more courage than you may initially understand,” says Michaela Boehm-de Wet, a multidisciplinary teacher and therapist who integrates both psychotherapeutic and hypnosis techniques into her work with clients. “We feel exposed and vulnerable. That old saying about the eyes being windows to the soul feels true when someone is looking deeply into ours. An intimate gaze is the most important step of connecting with another human being, and it is essential in social interaction such as networking.”

Whether you are meeting someone new or greeting a client at the beginning of an appointment, use as much eye contact as feels comfortable. If this is purely a social meeting, such as a coffee break during a seminar, don’t be afraid to make the opening move and meet the other person’s eyes first.

Before engaging in conversation, look straight into their eyes. Allow for two full seconds in which you simply look before you speak. Then smile, step closer, extend your hand, touch the person’s arm or shoulder, and start talking. The look is more important than the words you say—it’s how you make a truly visceral connection. Then ask a friendly question that gets the other person talking. If you have business cards, hand them out freely.

When greeting your client, locking eyes, as much as your gifted hands, is what helps to burn the impression of the treatment experience in their mind. It exposes you as being an open portal and invites them to connect energetically, beginning the experience of deep skin care. This is what the client takes away when returning to the world, as well as what leads to rebooking and referrals.

Introducing SQ

Looking and touching rapidly are becoming lost arts. Most people know that the emotional quotient (EQ) is the new intelligence quotient (IQ), but what’s missing these days is the social quotient (SQ). This is partly due to the fact that many individuals have become typists instead of talkers. Not only do you spend less time face to face—you spend less time actually conversing because you find it easier to use the keyboard, no matter how tiny the keys. Cold, pixilated text has replaced the human voice with its myriad of tones. As a result, society is becoming less social. Anyone who ever has felt the sting of a poorly worded e-mail knows all about this dangerous loss of social language.

This crucial fluency is being lost in the nuances of not only eye language, but also in every idiom of body language, as well as the nearly infinite range of vocal expression—from snarls to muses to purrs. These days, you often don’t know what to say and find yourself feeling awkward in situations that your grandmother would have handled with ease, because even a few decades ago there was an accepted social protocol.

This loss is evident in every aspect of modern life, including business. Consider the entry-level professional who answers the telephones in your spa—perhaps that person is you. There truly could not be a job that is more important to any professional setting. The telephone-answerer is a gatekeeper, an image-setter and more. A script often is supplied, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Some well-meaning business experts advise smiling or applying lipstick to improve your telephone manner, but this, too, only hints at a much larger awareness that is essential in order to win client loyalty verbally and interpersonally.

Opening doors

Landing great work, whether in the form of a salaried job or a project, may be influenced greatly by who you’ve gabbed with over pomegranate martinis at a casual-but-strategic gathering. The purpose of networking is to replicate nepotism when it comes to uncovering opportunities.

It’s certainly not a new concept that much of business success is who you know, more so even than what you know. You’ve all seen nepotism in action in the workplace: The boss’ ditsy niece gets the plum job and the newest flat-screen monitor while more talented and worthy, but less connected souls toil away in the shadows for half the pay. Not that you’re bitter! If you’ve played your karma right, maybe you’ve even been at the receiving end of nepotism or simply a strong social contact.

So even if you can’t be Tori Spelling, you still can meet the right people, volunteer for the right charities, attend the right seminars and get yourself invited to the right galas where work prospects are spread around as liberally as pâté on an onion cracker. Yes, it really is all out there waiting for you. And this method is valuable far beyond the treatment room. The skill of getting other people to talk freely about themselves is actually the key to true networking. When you’re at the market, at a party or in an elevator, remember that a casual exchange can lead to a client referral. You just have to get out there and snatch that canapé off the platter before it passes.

Enough about me

There truly is a whole book to be written about the new business etiquette. Emily Post and Miss Manners, among others, provided a great beginning, but it’s a less literate and much ruder new world that calls for a new communication style. In simpler times—before 1970—there were very specific social rules about what subjects were appropriate for conversation in specific circumstances. Many topics were taboo for what quaintly was called “mixed company,” but that has been changed forever.

Today, everyone is a bit unclear about what still is appropriate and where the boundaries of tasteful conversation lie. The safest approach is to say as little as possible about yourself without seeming sphinxlike. To keep it simple, here’s the cardinal rule: If you’ve been hearing the lovely music of your own voice for more than three minutes, you are talking far too much.

When a client asks how you are, remember that this is a social pleasantry, not an invitation for you to start chattering. Also, you are not a professional movie critic or a prize-winning philosopher, so don’t go off on a rant. Do not be full of opinions. And when the client asks, “How was your vacation in Bulgaria?” or “How are things with your divorce?” or “When does that lovely neck brace come off?” answer as pleasantly and briefly as possible. Turn every polite inquiry back to the client—they should be the focus of the appointment.

No entrepreneur is an island

Perhaps this sort of social assertiveness feels a bit intimidating to you. Connection and communication are at the heart of your profession. Yet many—if not most—skin care therapists are entrepreneurs, and nearly every entrepreneur will tell you that there is an aspect of solitude to their work. Entrepreneurial success is based on an ability and willingness to work alone.

Compared with hair and nail artists, skin care therapists tend to be contained and introspective. Think about it: You choose to work in small dimly lit rooms one-on-one with half-naked clients who you render virtually incapable of speech through the alchemy of your effleurage, petrissage, tapotement and more. This would not be described as the chosen profession of an extrovert, especially when contrasted with the flouncy hair and nail worlds. But you reach deeply into the consciousness and being of your clients—what could be more intimate?

The science, craft and art of skin care are all about communication that involves nonverbal contact even more than words. Although you literally “press the flesh” for a living, you may cringe at the thought of networking in the sense of glad-handing and working a room. The fact is that your largely silent communion with your clients is a powerful form of networking. Your profession requires the total package—your voice, your eyes and, of course, your good hands. Most importantly, you network via the human skin, and this is the most personal and profound language on Earth. Speak it with love.

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